By: Leslie Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute
Microphone - One voice

With more than 38,000 items available for sale on the shelves of the average supermarket, there are days when it seems as if – on average – there is a comparable number of consumer concerns about the foods and products they purchase for their families. While many of these customer considerations are about health and wellness and food safety matters, FMI perceives a growing shopper emphasis on issues having more of a social responsibility outlook, such as sustainability, fair treatment of employees and welfare of animals.

Animal welfare concerns have been in the crosshairs of a number of advocacy organizations that pursue the goal of demanding alternative production practices. Two poultry related production issues, cage-free eggs and slow-growing broiler chickens, have been a current target, but other species have also had their day of being the focus of activist advocacy efforts. While these topics are top of mind for advocates and the focus of their pressure campaigns, we believe food retailer exploration of them must include awareness of the level of their customers’ knowledge, beliefs and willingness to pay for these attributes.  This is especially relevant since activist demands seldom contain funding plans for a seamless transition to new production methods. This, of course, means the cost burden ultimately falls on the consumer, so retailers must know if their shoppers are willing to bear this cost before making commitments.

The FMI Foundation recently joined forces with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the Animal Agriculture Alliance to fund consumer research exploring this topic. Jayson Lusk, Ph.D., a food and agriculture economist at Purdue University, is leading a research team that have surveyed 3,000 consumers this fall. Respondents were asked to make a series of choices among products that vary in price and other attributes, such as production practices (cage-free, pasture-raised, slow growth, conventionally raised), labeling claims, packaging, product color and appearance. The findings from this research will be shared with key food and agriculture stakeholders to inform decision making on these issues in the retail setting.

This initial research study is serving as a pilot project for FMI to create a framework for the food industry to have a more unified voice on shared issues confronting FMI members. We refer to this new program as the Unified Voice Protocol and it is FMI’s most recent effort to establish a model approach to proactively perpetuate the environment of trust consumers tell us they enjoy with food retailers and to enhance that trust in the broader food and consumer goods industries.

Based on the learnings from this first pilot project on poultry production practices, FMI will identify the next issue for a second project to test the Unified Voice Protocol in early 2018. The action steps for the Protocol include to identify and prioritize issues of concern to the food and agriculture industries, to establish issue coalitions and project collaborators, to conduct data review and analysis, and to execute outreach and education strategies to participate in the public conversation and influence current and future issues.

This project is critical. It establishes a mechanism for FMI members to better understand their customers’ preferences and therefore respond to them; it provides the opportunity for consumers to access additional and more complete information about the products they purchase, beyond that put forth by advocacy groups; it furthers FMI’s role and responsibility to serve as the voice of the food retail industry; and perhaps most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.